An Industry Viewpoint: Social Media Services

Although I want to map out all the social media services companies, it’s too early to take on such a herculean task –there are too many players and many of them will merge or go away as the recession water recede.

Often, people ask me what the services market is going to look like in a few years, and here’s my take: after some consolidation, it will probably look a lot like other digital agencies exist like search, email, advertising, or interactive –despite the approach is often radically different (and sometimes the exact same).

Three Categories of Service Offerings
We will be able to bucket the services groups into three main categories:

1) Large agencies that are now offering social media services, but in addition to other core services like interactive, PR, search, or strategy (like Organic, Razorfish, Ogilvy, Edelman)
2) Pure play Social Media Shops (like Conversation Group, Federated Media, Chris Brogan’s group, and to some degree, Shift communications)
3) A variety of personal consultants that offer social media services.

A Crowded Space
For the Community Platform wave, we narrowed down to 9 vendors out of over 100, I would expect for this market of services to be in the thousands. Maybe tens of thousands in a few years. Mapping them out has been a task, Charlene started with a wiki with five categories (I think I could collapse into my three), but maintaining it will be a beast.

Packaged Offerings Start to Emerge
Perhaps rather than watch all the different players emerge, it may be more fruitful to monitor the type of offerings, the ever vocal Derek Showerman launched Social Media Services Group that is a spin off from several groups offers a menu of services, including some suggested packages including analytics packages. This is one of the first menus I’ve seen that offers both À la carte and family meals, and I expect to see more.

Specialization in a Nascent Market
While you could easily apply the traditional filter of verticals like tech, healthcare or finance, we’re already seeing specialization in social media services, some breakdown by vertical community folks (Forum One, Ant’s eye view) vs Web Video (Variety of agencies) vs Sponsored Conversations (Federated Media, Edelman). Even within the growing community market there’s specialists that could focus in on strategy, kick starting, community management, analytics, or research.

Impacts of the Recession
I currently see an influx of social media consultants, in part due to the recession, and secondly due to personal usage being translated to a market offering. I expect this third band of individual consultants to decrease as we move out of the recession and folks move on to other careers (perhaps one that’s not saturated). It’s important to not confuse personal passions for a new medium vs professional expertise –see next bullet.

Considerations before hiring
If I was asked “how do you find the right consultant” I almost always say to look at track record. In this space, experience matters a great deal, as they’ve had to experiment with new media that doesn’t fit well with traditional methods. The key thing when finding social media services is to not just to look for successful deployments, but also find out about what they’ve done wrong. If they haven’t messed up something, their not pushing the edge hard enough, and may not do that for you, as their client. Messing up is one thing, but as a result, find out what the lessons learned were, I think that’s most important. Some may say that this is such a young market, how can you gauge experience? If you look closely, there are some practitioners that have been doing this for 5 years or longer. Similarly, experience shouldn’t be limited to social media alone, did they successfully latch on to other movements in digital before the world of blogs and tweets?

Leave comment: what criteria do you look for?
I could list out a whole series of bullets of what to look for and what not to, but that’s been done before. So let me turn it over to you, what criteria are you seeking when hiring social media services? Like this space, I expect –and hope– to see a wide range of answers.

Written from a hotel in friendly Minneapolis, 530am.

47 Replies to “An Industry Viewpoint: Social Media Services”

  1. Jeremiah:

    More of a question than a comment — your focus here is on those with experience to help an organization with their “social media” efforts. I’m wondering what type of skills you might expect from graduating college seniors when it comes to social media and marketing?

    As a college prof who teaches Internet-based Marketing I’ve been working hard to ensure my students are grounded in Marketing best practices and that they are up to date on the latest tools (as much as a 15 week class can get them there).

    So, if a college grade came to you fresh out of college with a marketing degree what would you want to see on their resume or LinkedIn account?


    Dr. Elaine Young
    Associate Professor, Marketing
    Champlain College
    Burlington, VT

  2. Dr Young

    A good question. When it comes to the freshly minted graduates, I personally would focus on: 1) Eagerness and willingness to learn, then followed by 2) related accomplishments in the field they are pursuing. Here’s where internships, school projects, and volunteer work come into play, giving graduates related experience as they enter the workforce. Specifically, if they were going to head into the social media field or marketing in general, they should be able to demonstrate their abilities around their own personal brand. What and how they use the tools, in addition to what they say will be telling.

  3. Jeremiah,

    Interesting that you put the failure criteria up there. It’s a great area for discussion and one clients seem reluctant to look since many seem to shy from any negativity – even when failure is positive.

    I have to agree that creating menus is critical. Most businesses are so new to this that they have little to no idea what we’re proposing. Menus up front and lots of hand holding throughout are critical to success.

    I wonder, though, if its too early for businesses to define its criteria. Maybe they need to go through one of the three categories above first. Having tried and failed, or at least under-delivered, helps enormously at figuring out what you really need as a business.

  4. Nice post, Jeremiah. Let me build on your reply to Dr. Young.

    The first thing we look for at Edelman is raw intellect. We want people who can think; we can teach them PR.

    Second, is a real passion for learning; this is often articulated as a love of news, and/or an awareness of what’s new and emerging in society, politics, technology, etc.

    Third, is how well they communicate and present themselves.

    Fourth, is like-ability and perceived cultural fit.

    Increasingly however, the prelude to all of these is a quick scan of the search engines to see how findable they are, and to what extent are they using social media / networking to express themselves.

    It’s not that we don’t hire people who aren’t knowledgable about and avid users of social media; we most certainly do. That said, a candidate’s value to us — especially those at entry level — is dramatically enhanced if they are.

    Feel free to contact me via email to chat further.

  5. Rick

    Thanks for this. Edelman was a pioneer in PR+Social Media. When I was writing about failures and learnings, I had Edelman in mind. What mattered is the firm, while fell a few times, dusted yourselves off and got back up. I see similar patterns with Wal-Mart and Dell. Sometimes the falls make folks stronger. Keep at it.

  6. Great post and comments — Rick, you nailed it on the list of hiring criteria. That’s more or less the filter we use here at HubSpot.

    Jeremiah, I was surprised that you put Federated Media into this bucket. You’re right to do so, but they started off as an ad network, which is how I still think of them. That they now seem more focused on providing their network clients with social media services says something about both ads and social media.

  7. “If you look closely, there are some practitioners that have been doing this for 5 years or longer.”

    Exactly. Just because we slap pastel colors on something doesn’t mean some haven’t been socializing on the web for marketing purposes for long before. Message boards, IRC, and forums have been around more than a decade, and really were the first ‘social media’.

  8. Thank you for a great post – I wish I had had it a month ago when in the process of hiring an entry level social media position – we definitely went the way of recent grads from two great local programs – and got nothing in the way of hands on experience. We ended up hiring a media masters student but I think the criteria above from Rick would have found us someone who could hit the ground running .. It’s true that you can teach pr and marketing, so it is important to focus on initiative, innovation, passion and problem solving/ability to survive 🙂

  9. Here is my one sticky point. The Social “Media” we speak of really are the platforms and for lack of a better term the Road Rules on how engagement can and should work within them. In that context hiring a social media consultant, firm or agency based on their social media experience can be awfully short sighted.

    If you are a entity in need of marketing help that has no brand, no ethos, I can see the approach you are mapping making sense, however, if you do already have a brand that is working then what? What is your approach toward the social platform sphere? If your current agency, consultant or what have you is tone deaf to the changing tide, yes some element of success/experience will be warranted in a seeking assitance.

    A lot of unsuspecting marketers outside (and even inside for that matter) the “big” national/international brands are getting taken for a ride in some cases.

    Case in point in the higher education marketing realm. Colleges and universities are tripping over themselves to claim social identity, which is great, but without any strategy or brand behind it they can hit a pretty big bump.

    Being “Social” is not a strategy in and of itself. Being “social” is an absolutely necessary component of overall strategy; listening to your audience and making your brand, products and experience better.

    Not to say “social” strategies can’t be the lead component or even the ignition point for a brand, but it should remain in context. I think Jeremiah your last point in “considerations” is critical. I would only add the idea of can the partner one might be seeking speak coherently and cite on the fly examples of what they think works and where struggles emerge in social.

  10. J,

    Some of us don’t fit neatly into one bucket or another, so I’m unsure if groups #1, #2 and #3 really do cover the spectrum.

    My team is 2 (going on 3) people, and we offer strategic consulting on social web strategy and distributed commerce implementations for lifestyle and consumer brands. We don’t currently offer a robust “agency” service component, because our clients generally prefer to implement.

    What do you make of that?


  11. An understanding of both the client organization and its key communities will be fundamental to success. Sounds tired, right? While social media may be radically different from traditional media and communications in many ways, certain fundamental aspects of these disciplines are not just similar “ they are the same.

    Without a thorough understanding of the client, consultants will likely rely on cosmetically tweaked programs that are ultimately misaligned with key considerations such as internal resources, commitment to consistent participation, digital assets, an approach to measurement, etc. I could go on but you get the idea; the process of walking a client through these factors in a thoughtful way and building a program accordingly is not unlike traditional consultancy.

    Likewise, without understanding key audiences, nothing else good can follow. In traditional communications, that might result in skewed messaging that never compels the intended audience. In social media, this can result in a complete misunderstanding of what value the audience wants and how it wants to interact, among other things. Again, broad strokes but the point is that knowing the tools, speaking the lingo and having a passion doesn™t add up to professional expertise.

    I™d also echo Rick Murray™s point about raw intellect. To use a clumsy sports analogy, look for people that can run fast, hit hard and who have non-stop motors; you can teach them the playbook.

    Joseph Kingsbury
    Text 100

  12. Jeremiah,

    Thank you. Your blog is like a breath of fresh air. I’ve been in the PR and corporate communication business for over 20 years and I always fall back on the fundamental communication model when analyzing communication / business objectives; Sender, Channel, Message, Receiver. Social media and the Web 2.0 tools that are coming online have the potential to finally move the neddle forward for communication theorists.

    As PR Director for Century 21 Real Estate, I’ve been dealing with negative headlines for over three years now. I’m curious about your perspective on how companies like Century 21 may positively influence consumer confidence through the utilization of social media tools. The real estate market is not bad for everyone, in fact, I’m out looking for a new home here in Parsippany, NJ and I’m very pleased with the options available to me. It is really an individual situation right now, market by market.

    I watched a presentation by Channing Dawson at Inman™s Real Estate Connect where he mentions Marshall McLuhan™s The medium is the message and repackages it as Marshall McLuhan (predicting the rise of social media online). I mean, I learned about McLuhan in Mass Comm 101 back in my undergrad days in 1990, but this 60 year old message does seem to have just as much, if not more relevance today.

    In any event, I™m a bit of a communication theory geek, but I™m sure you can see the relevance. It seems to me that many social media advocates are espousing would be entrepreneurs (e.g., small business owners or sole proprieters) to brand themselves and use social media to market. Are we moving to a place where each business will need to develop into a media property with their own radio, tv, newsprint broadcasting capabilities to promote their business and build online brand value to build equity?

    Regards from NJ

    Matt Gentile

  13. I come from more of a B2B perspective…

    Your social media consultant needs to be a good teacher. A consultant can map a strategy for you, but the best social media practitioners are in-house. Only in-house professionals have the knowledge and credibility to provide authentic interaction with key constituencies — the hallmark of good social media implementation.

    Yes, rely on consultants who understand and have experience with the latest social media tools, but rely on them more for their ability to orient you and your colleagues to this new way of interacting with your target audiences.

  14. We are a media strategy, planning and buying agency and have hired several newly minted grads in the past – some successful, some not so. Social media knowledge has given these people a whole new skill set to leverage in the job search. However, I would (and will in future hires) look first for all those traits that Rick Murray mentions above. I would also add that the importance of good communication skills and a strong sense of professionalism is even more important in the social media realm, since all communications are “out there”. One last thought – Hiring is an unnatural act at best and intuition plays a key part.
    Thanks for attempting to quantify/categorize this space, Jeremiah. What a daunting task!

  15. Jeremiah,

    Agree with Adam above regarding categorizing the industry. While I understand the current fragmentation of the market, there are several boutique companies delivering excellent results for clients. Like our company Impact Interactions, our frienemies ForumOne and Athena East have been around helping large global organizations for over 8-10 years and have excellent references from their clients to match their experience. We may not be 100 employees strong, but our knowledge is tested and deep.

    Many of us understand that what we are now calling social media is not new. We’ve helped organizations with interactions online prior to the terms Web 2.0 or social media ever being coined. We understand the best practices of online behavior are more important than the tools. This is because we worked with GeoCities before there was a Friendster or MySpace or Facebook. We worked with listserves and chat rooms before there was a blog, wiki, or Twitter. We adapt our knowledge to help our clients succeed. Just as important, we help our clients avoid mistakes that others don’t see coming.

    What we are seeing now is anyone who has ever been an AOL moderator, a part-time moderator, or who can gain the most followers on Twitter advertising themselves as social media experts. But they are hardly specialized in most cases and thus hard to define into a category.

    In terms of specialization, when prospects and existing clients come back to us for additional work it is usually because we can provide help with the strategy, and also with the processes, execution, management, and most importantly the measurement. They don’t want to have four firms or consultants, they want one who understands the whole process and can get results.

    As Jeff states above, the ability to work with and train your clients is an important part of the requirement for a good agency relationship as well. If you are not helping your clients come down the learning curve you are failing in your engagement.

    After the recession, it will be very interesting to see who is left in the industry. We see consolidation and opportunities to add talent (with solid relationships). Coupled with our current clients, we expect to be much stronger in a year than we are today.

    If you are looking to buy services, experience with results that can be transferred to your specific needs are the key. Having managed a single community or having 10,000 followers on Twitter or friends on Facebook doesn’t necessary qualify expertise. Focus on the quality of results not quantity of social media noise created…

    Okay, I’ll step off the soap box as I’m finished with my rant… 😉

  16. Agreed re: FM — the fact that they’ve had to evolve past ads underscores the importance of social media to marketers, relative to advertising.

  17. Jeremiah,

    Thank you for mentioning the experience that is often missed in social media. I started in the digital space back in 96 and watched as online advertising evolved from search (remember GoTo?) to behavioral targeting to display ads that ask feedback from viewers.

    Understanding the evolution of the space is pivotal when talking to not only large clients like those at Edelman, but also to that small business owners in my neighborhood that think they need to buy ads on their daily portal.


  18. It still comes back to authenticity. I’m finding anyone that has a Twitter account or Facebook page is calling themselves a social media expert. How are companies to know who is and who isn’t?

    It’s been almost ten years since the bible of internet marketing, Cluetrain Manifesto, was published. It still rings true that markets are conversations and authenticity wins the day in the long run.

  19. Jeremiah,

    I was pleased to see the mention of the new services packages Nattergalen is offering in partnership with Derek Showerman (Authority Domains) and Steve Murthey (independant consultant) under the Social Media Services Group banner.

    I notice you grabbed onto the A-la-carte vs. meal offerings concept. From the conversations I’ve had with clients and potential clients this seems to be the real hook: offering specific services, with specific goals and executable steps attached, on a clearly defined menu as either A-la-carte or “full meal” packages. One partner mentioned that usually when they talk to consultants and ask them what they do, the consultants always ask for a roundtable meeting to define their job, and they love having everything laid out in a clear cut format like this.

    When we were developing the package concepts we were really just trying to mimic ingrained buying habits, and used car shopping as a template. Typically cars offer individual upgrades but the cars tend to be based on packages: a luxury package, or a sport package that offers a bundle of features that work together to create a complete concept.

    We felt that offering a broadly comprehensive set of services would be our initial hook, but the execution of a plainly stated menu with individual service offerings and bundled packages has been our strongest sales tool so far. Seeing how well people have responded to the bundled offerings concept has been a pleasant surprise.

  20. Jeremiah,

    Thanks for the mention and link in your blog. I especially like the “ever vocal” comment. 😉 To answer your question about measuring, I set a series of benchmarks and goals based on business objectives and resources being utilized at the outset. This can be easily tracked by the Techrigy product. With that being said, we do offer our services À la carte but we do highly recommend the Techrigy solution to track against the success benchmarks. This too helps the customer see real ROI. I hope this helps answer your twitter comment.

    Looking forward to our debriefing with you.

  21. I resonate with Rick Murray’s written observations, which I summarize here:

    #1) A teachable thinker.

    #2) A passionate learner.

    #3) A presentable, clear communicator.

    #4) A likeable individual who would plays well with others.

    As a relative newcomer, or “late adopter” to the social media field I was grateful that these characteristics were valued while I eagerly learned the social media mechanics, culture and players. It is fortunate that social media has the openness to allow someone with 28 years of professional selling and marketing experience in “old school” ways to learn new and powerful tools.

    My colleague and friend, Des Walsh (@deswalsh) advocates that social media is essentially a communication tool.

    I advocate that the four suggested characteristics plus a sense to convey “personal touch”, or hand holding to a client goes a long way.

    The firms and individuals who get the above essentials will continue to thrive and be sought out for their services. This is especially true, as clients become more discerning about what they are really buying.

  22. Big thanks to everyone who provided me with info on what you think is important in a recent colelge graduate. I’ll pass these on to my students at Champlain and hope they pay attention to your advice.


  23. Elaine, glad you got some value out of this.

    Jeff Ingram, Carlos H, good point about needing teachers in this young space, I think that’s a very, very valid characteristic to look for.

    Sadly, I hear of some consultants and vendors complaining about that very fact, as they often have to educate for free –in hopes of winning the business later. Here’s where educative blogging comes into play, allowing those to strut their stuff by helping not just to educate prospects but the whole market.

  24. Thanks for the mention of Ant’s Eye View – it’s great to see our work noticed. Like others, I’m not sure the categories are right, but given the stage of the industry it’s unlikely any categorization would be accurate…the market, and the economy, will shake that out. If I were to categorize Ant’s Eye View, it would be as a management consultancy (the wikipedia definition feels reasonable). While our team is deep in community and social experience as corporate practitioners (Dell, MSFT, LEGO), we are likely more accurately “customer experience and business geeks” than “social geeks.” We see our job as being about the business case, business model, strategy definition, alignment with goals and execution roadmap. It’s certainly true that much of the work we do manifests as community and social tactics, but I’d argue that if every piece of advice you are getting about customer experience improvement is social media centric than you’ve hired the wrong consulting partner. Many of our engagements result in collaborations with other partners who may provide research, agency design services and or technology solutions as our approach is a best of breed approach vs full “turnkey” as the rate of learning and innovation in the market doesn’t lend itself to trying to be full service. At any rate, it’s a good conversation to advance. The semantics make it difficult as language can be pretty imprecise. Try asking 20 people in this industry to give examples of strategy development and you’ll see a huge range of answers and only begin to show the complexity.

    CEO and co-founder, Ant’s Eye View

  25. Jeremiah,

    Thanks for acknowledging the need to educate before “selling”.

    As a Boomer, I was scared but eager when I went to BlogWorld Expo in 2007. I did not know what was going to happen, but felt so comfortable that they featured panels such as “Blogging 101”. The deal sealer was meeting Des Walsh, @deswalsh who reminded me of Steven Covey. I quickly concluded that there was “room for me in the inn”.

    I teach many an unemployed Boomer who has been brought to the point of acknowledging that old dogs do need to learn new tricks. The resulting look of hope in their eyes when they “get it” and see the wonder of LinkedIn, FB and Twitter is very rewarding!

    Thanks to you for being one of my teachers.

  26. Criteria: Ability to Partner with Other Firms

    Unlike most services, I don’t like to see all-in-one type shops any more. Someone that can offer me strategy, development, hosting, content, and moderation raises an eyebrow. If Social Media is all about bringing experts together, how can you possibly be an expert in all those things?

    I like companies that specialize in 1-2 parts of the process (strategy and content), and then have key relationships with experts in other areas (development and hosting). I look for people who can work together with not only me as a customer (because that’s easy) but with companies they may have traditionally competed against in the past.

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  28. Big thanks to everyone who provided me with info on what you think is important in a recent college graduate. I'll pass these on to my students at Champlain and hope they pay attention to your advice.

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